Last season's failure drives Michigan State seniors
Syracuse, N.Y. — Some 250 miles away, almost exactly one year ago, Denzel Valentine sat in the Michigan State locker room just feet away from Keith Appling.
The Spartans senior had a towel over his head, his face buried in his hands.
Michigan State had just lost to Connecticut in the East Regional final, meaning Appling and fellow senior Adreian Payne would not play in a Final Four. The pair became the first four-year players under coach Tom Izzo who failed to do so.
It was too much for Appling to bear. He never lifted his head. He tried to answer some questions, talking about the shock he was feeling.
It was the end for him, the end for Payne. But it was also when the resolve of this year's team began.
Valentine said in the hushed Madison Square Garden locker room that Michigan State would be back next year with another shot to get back to the Final Four.
It seemed like a pipe dream at the time. Payne and Appling were gone and Gary Harris soon followed, joining Payne as a first-round NBA draft pick. There were no blue-chippers coming to fill the gaps.
But on the verge of No. 7 seed Michigan State's meeting with No. 4 seed Louisville in Sunday's East Regional final at the Carrier Dome, Valentine recalled that moment a year ago.
"It was a big motivation factor seeing those guys go through what they went through," Valentine said. "Those guys were crushed, seeing their faces and how they reacted, it was a big motivation factor for us. During this time, we think about that. We want to make sure that's not us."
They will get that shot, even though not many people expected them to. They certainly did not when Michigan State lost to Texas Southern. They didn't when Michigan State lost at home to Illinois. And many didn't even when this tournament began last week.
But that locker room scene from a year ago is vivid for these players. They want to win it for Payne and Appling, even Harris, who is now in the NBA. However, it's not all about those no longer wearing the green and white.
This team — seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson specifically — want it as much for themselves as anything. They were part of that team a year ago that was supposed to win it all. The pain was just as stark for them.
"As disappointing as it was to see them go out like that, that hurts us, too," Trice said. "It's been a dream for us, to go to a Final Four and play for a national championship. It's added motivation for us, too, because we want to get there."
And become the most improbable of all Tom Izzo's Final Four teams, no doubt.
The Michigan State coach has been to six Final Fours, and most of those teams were extremely talented. The 2005 crew was the most like this one, but Izzo admitted there has been plenty of surprise with this team.
"Not a lot of years I'm not (surprised)," Izzo said. "But this year, I guess I am, to be honest."
That's because the Spartans might not be quite as good as a year ago and it showed for much of the season. Free throws cost them a few games and the record was ugly at points, but Izzo tried to keep them on the right path.
"I think we did a decent job as a staff selling them on the glass," Izzo said. "I'm usually a half-empty guy. I made it a little more half-full. A couple times I was trying to go to three-quarters full. And I think some of it worked."
Things began to turn in February and now, even though the free throws are still an issue, they are not late in games. In the win over Oklahoma, Trice and Valentine combined to go 6-for-6 in the final minutes.
It has Michigan State a step away from duplicating what Connecticut did last season before eventually winning the national championship. The Huskies, who eliminated the Spartans that day in New York, were the seven seed and knocked off Nos. 10, 2, 3 and 4 to get to the Final Four.
This year, Michigan State is the seven seed and it has beaten Nos. 10, 2 and 3 with No. 4 up next.
"I should thank Kevin Ollie, for he's given me a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel," Izzo said of the UConn coach.
If the Spartans should win this regional, Izzo would likely be happier than after any of the previous six Final Fours, maybe even in 2000 when the Spartans won the national title.
"Yeah, it really would," Izzo said. "I think, to be blunt about it, it would be one of the greatest things we've done at Michigan State. … You feel for those guys that kind of were tagged with the burden of being the first team that the seniors didn't make it because it's kind of ridiculous when you think about it. I mean, it was something that was going to end sooner or later. But that team had been through so much with Appling's injuries, Harris' injuries, Payne and Dawson missing the games at the end of the year, and still bouncing back to make an incredible run until that doggone 7-seed went and ruined the party.
"But for these players, Travis and them … they're setting their own mark. They're setting their own footprint, and I love when people set a footprint in the sand so they can leave knowing they've done something that few before them have done, and they're doing that. It could be capped by getting to a Final Four, and then of course, double-capped by going beyond that. But the Final Four is everybody's dream. We're 40 minutes away to have a chance to do that, and it's a special time."